Eric Williams’ Thesis on Capitalism and Slavery, and Arguments Made for and against the Thesis
The Industrial Revolution began in Britain at the end of the XVIII century. In the first half of the XIX century, it became comprehensive and then covered other countries in Europe and America. There is the undisputed scientific notion under which the main factors of the Industrial Revolution in England were the following: the formation of institutions which were able to protect private property and contractual obligations, in particular, the independent and effective judicial system; high level of trade development; free-market formation, especially the land market; the widespread use of wage labor and the loss of forced labor use on a large scale; the development of financial markets, and the low level of interest on loans. Nevertheless, professor Eric Williams developed another opinion. In the book Capitalism and Slavery, he argued that slavery helped to finance the Industrial Revolution and became the crucial factor in its progress. He proposed sufficient reasoning concerning the influence of slaveholders’ activities on the economy of European countries. Williams disproved the traditional concept of economic and moral progress and established a strong connection between the African slave trade and the development of the Old World contrives. The scientist’s opinion is grounded and substantiated, which allows supporting his thoughts even considering their queerness.
Eric Williams’ arguments have an appropriate scientific justification due to the fact that the economic growth in Great Britain has a relation to slave trade activities. During the historical research, it was found that the complex commercial network around the world was mainly based on the so-called triangular trade. This phenomenon appeared early in the XVII century. There was the route that connected Europe, Africa, and America. Merchants transported goods to Africa in order to buy slaves. The necessity to overcome such distance was dedicated to the high popularity of slave labor on the American continent. Thus, serfs were taken to American slaveholders, and it was one of the first attempts to establish the intercontinental commercial relationships (112-116). According to this fact, it is worth nothing to share Williams’ opinion concerning the importance of human traffic in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The aforementioned system connected Britain and America. African continent also played a very significant role as a source of human resources.
The second large trade system was established by the Dutch. Their settlers in Brazil gained big income developing a sugar cultivation industry. Subsequently, the techniques invented by the Dutch were implemented by British colonies, especially in Barbados. French settlements also tried to be competitive in the world sugar market. All these intentions could not be fulfilled without the use of the slave trade. The problem of the lack of labor forces arose especially after the sugar revolution in the British West Indies (Williams 216-220). Therefore, it was clear that those commodity-money relations would not be developed without forced labor.
At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, profits of British enterprises were enormous high and, as it was wisely mentioned by Eric Williams, it was impossible to achieve success by using only paid employment. These profits from exploitative slavery were used to finance agricultural innovations and provide the essential technological changes in all spheres of manufacturing. While both the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries were well known as a trade period, the triangular trade system was extremely profitable and became the main commercial network for numerous countries, especially for Britain. The black-skinned people were used on the plantations producing mainly sugar, indigo, cotton, molasses, etc. (55-67). Considering the growth commodity and availability of free labor, it is apparent that English enterprises could not work without the use of slave manpower, and all of them took part in the triangular trade.
The scholar had analyzed historical documents and found that in the middle of the eighteenth century British West Indian plantations made a big profit, which was more than seventy million sterling pounds per year. Consequently, it was the most profitable business in Europe and America. It became possible because of the broad use of slave labor. The goods made on plantations were popular among citizens of many European and American countries, while Britain accrues financial resources for innovative purposes (Williams 137-1390). England became wealthy and was able to spend money on industrial restructuring and have enough exchequers to rub through the first stages of the revolution. Thence, it became possible to apply the mercantile economic system, which provided additional governmental regulation.
The extra demand for sugar and a large number of plantations increased the importance of the triangular system. It was necessary to produce more tin and coal. British merchants did not have enough ships to transport all manufactured goods from colonies to metropolis. Moreover, special boats were built to transfer slaves. These new models were designed to go faster and to accommodate more people. Slaves were almost not fed, so it was very important to sell them as fast as possible to decrease their mortality. The increase in the number of ships required more trained people who were able to navigate transport facilities. There is a scientific fact that when slavery was abolished, many masters of ships, seamen and mates became unemployed (Williams 137-1390). Furthermore, the interrelation between the slave trade and the Industrial Revolution was much stronger than anybody can imagine.
The expansion of the triangle system led to the necessity to increase the number of seaports. The largest port in London could no longer take all ships from America with slaves and from colonies with goods. Thus, new seaports were opened in Liverpool, Glasgow and other big cities. The creation of harbors led to the development of new trading centers with numerous merchants and customers. This fact facilitated slave distribution around the whole of England. In the eighteenth century, Bristol became the second-largest trade British city, which provided active slaves and sugar commerce and gained a sufficient profit from it. Received money was used to renovate factories and apply new technologies. When black-skinned slaves and sugar were traded in British centers, other goods such as wool, cotton, rum, etc. were transported to other European countries, which produced ships and additional equipment like padlocks, chains, and fetters in order to imprison slaves and prevent self-murder or rebellion. These facts showed what an important position in the world’s trade system the slave trade took. Everything which was connected with serfs’ labor, for instance, their transportation, purchase, and sale required additional workplaces and units when the profit from the use of free work was off the scale.
Despite the cogency of Williams’ position, there are several arguments against his point of view. Professor Engerman mentioned that the significance of facts presented by Williams was overestimated, and his approach broadly provides valid facts and events (205). Additionally, the calculation of trade profits was made incorrectly, because the scholar did not separate the incomes from the sale of sugar and from the triangle system. Bilateral colonial trade activities also should have been calculated severally. Another group of scholars under the guidance of historian Solow conducted sufficient research and found that the trade within the framework of the triangular system could not be the determinative of the Industrial Revolution (110). According to numerous studies, the revenue from a slave trade was not more than 10 percent from total expenses, and it was impossible to accumulate a sufficient amount of money to invest in the whole Industrial Revolution.
The scholars also support the view concerning the relevance of other factors, such as independent and effective judicial system; the high level of trade development; free-market formation, especially the land market; the widespread use of wage labor and the loss of use of forced labor on a large scale; the development of financial markets and the low level of interest on loans (Darity 381). Moreover, it was emphasized that the success of the revolution was caused by its innovative nature and the ability to significantly improve money and trade relations. The wage labor seemed to be much more effective and profitable due to the concern of workers in good results of their labor. The European countries adopted the system proposed by the British because of its expediency.
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The opponents of Williams’ theory also mentioned that he did not provide adequate pieces of evidence to prove that the industrial improvements were financed independently by the slave trade, while the income from plantations’ manufacturers could not be considered as the straight profit from serf traffic. Thence, there was no direct connection between the invested money and profits from the slave trade. The data mentioned by the author did not prove that the industrial innovations became the consequence of the accumulation of capital exactly from commercial operations with helots. The aforecited mercantile system, which was approved by the government in order to increase financial income, led to large losses and proved its inaptitude (Solow 115).
If to analyze country’s financial indicators, it becomes clear that Britain did not get huge profits from slavery, and due to this fact, the government and large companies made the attempt to transform the economic system and substitute the use of slave trade by a new type of employment relationships using the paid work. Furthermore, the archive documents canalized by scientists showed that the most profitable period of the slave trade was at the end of the eighteenth century. As for the significance of West Indies manufactures, the opponents indicated to its small size and inability to provide a significant influence on the British economical development.
Despite the numerous opponents of Williams’ theory, it seems to be well reasoned and trustworthy. The overall analysis of historical documents showed that there was a potential possibility to establish the profitable slave trade market, which became a landmark in the development of further economic relationships between countries. The significance of serf trade is very difficult to overestimate. The British slave market was not competitive, thus merchants had the ability to establish high prices. This fact allowed getting an extra profit. Moreover, there is a necessity to make a distinction between the causes of revolution and its financial basis. Even when businessmen had the aim to improve old commodity-money relations and create a new, more democratic system, the sources of financing were limited, and the slave trade was one of the most profitable. The veracity of Williams’ views is proved by the fact that in order to analyze the problem wholly, he visited the Caribbean countries and independently studied the whole flow of information from primary sources. On the contrary, Williams’ opponents evaluated the facts without the possibility to use original documents.
Finally, based on the aforementioned, there is the urgent need to mention the good scientific justification of Williams’ position. During the study, it was reasonable to agree with his theory due to the above-mentioned facts. The importance of the slave trade over the period of the first stages of the Industrial Revolution is without any doubts. Even if to assume that it did not play a major role in developing a new type of economic relations, it is very difficult to disprove the fact that a slave trade income was the primary financial source for business and caused the growth of numerous supplementary industries. Insignificant discrepancies in calculations did not prove the untruthfulness of Williams’ investigations. Anyway, in spite of numerous opponents, it is obvious to state that Eris Williams’ theory is very adventurous and extraordinary. It helps to reconceptualize the thought concerning the backgrounds of the Industrial Revolution and realize that the usual concepts and theories cannot provide the full analysis of historical events.
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